What’s Wrong with the Winter Olympics?
What’s wrong with the Winter Olympics? Let’s start with Winter. Sport originated in holiday or festival celebrations in the Spring that were designed to encourage fertility of both soil and celebrants. Athletes of the Olympic Games from 776 BC to 393 AD, as an extension of those earlier vernal rites, commonly competed in the nude.
Of course, this year’s ice-dancing debutantes very nearly do so, too, and they are to be lauded for their high-minded homage to history. But until the snowboarders and ski- jumpers follow suit — of the birthday sort, that is — I’m sticking to my position that it’s too damned cold for outdoor sport. Not too cold for outside games, mind you, or demonstrations, or exhibitions, or contests — just for sport as most men understand it. As a charter member of that endangered tribe, at least as an intended recipient of mass-media programming, I will presume to speak for my brethren.
As louts lacking refined sensibility, men draw the line at according the honorable term “sport” to an activity that has predetermined grading criteria, subjective judging, nationalistic bias, and computerized tabulation (unless it’s boxing, but even in that benighted sport we brutes pray for a knockout to get around the dreaded scorecards). We like scores that look like this: 4-3; 28-21; 99-97 ... not 5.9 or 63.2. In baseball, football, basketball, hockey, even the somnambulist sport of soccer, we know the score and the stage of the game while we are watching it. At the track, for horses or men, the clock is provided for additional information — has a record been set, for example — but not to determine the victor. The race is to the swift, pure and simple.
Well-conditioned athletes of high determination and character populate the Winter Games as they do those of the Summer. But when they compete against the clock, or the scorecard, rather than against each other, it says here that they are playing a mere game much like the old television show Beat the Clock, in which the activity counted for nothing except maybe laughs and the clock was everything.
Why are baseball and cricket the two greatest of all sports? Because the players and spectators enter into a magic circle from which time is excluded.
As has been the wretched tendency with the Summer Games (medals for croquet, tug-of-war, trampolining, table tennis, and synchronized swimming), over time more and more dubious sports entered the Winter Olympics schedule. Biathlon — a modified form of military ski patrol (jeez) — came in for men in 1960 and women in 1992. Ice dancing appeared in 1976, moguls in 1992, aerials in 1994. The annus horribilis of 1998 brought us snowboarding and curling, the latter a stalking horse for shuffleboard’s entry into the Summer Games. Skeleton, after a long absence from the Games, returned to the program for men in 2002, at which time a women’s skeleton was added, too, though Kate Moss declined to enter.
Now, I’m not saying these activities are easy to perform well. But neither is typing, or hopping on one foot, or most anything else that may be done better or worse by one or another of us. And I’m not saying that there is no risk in ice dancing, especially to the female partner held aloft like a bag of groceries by a showoff at the checkout counter. And I’m not saying that the Olympic athletes are not fine specimens of humanity (excepting Bode Miller, Chad Henrick, and Shani Davis). But skill, daring and character do not define sport; head-to-head competition does — and the kamikaze fire drill of short-track speed skating doesn’t fit the bill, as the clock is the real contestant anyway.
As the Winter Olympics limp toward their merciful conclusion, and another American contestant or team goes down in flames, NBC struggles to fill its programming time with human-interest (is there another kind?) stories of the most maudlin cast. On the network’s Olympic website, Listerine Whitening invites you to click on its ad to see “the winning smiles of U.S. athletes” rather than the smiles of U.S. winning athletes. But our national disappointment is not why I’m giving up on the Winter Olympics, nor is it the rampant commercialization and stultification of man’s noblest trait, aspiration.
What has worn me down was present at the beginning, or at least my beginning, watching every televised Olympics, winter and summer, since 1956. It’s nationalism, that maker of wars and breaker of hearts since time began. I realize that my pleasure in the New York Rangers’ revival, after seven years of famine and pestilence, was owed largely to a legion of Czech mates led by Jaromir Jagr and a Swedish goalie named Henrik Lundqvist. To me they were all Rangers until they departed for their country’s respective headquarters at Torino, where the medal count by nation commenced with Day One. And they’ll be Rangers again next month, that’s not the issue.
When Pierre de Coubertin engineered a revival of the ancient Greek Olympics for Athens in 1896, it was after renouncing his family’s ambitions for him in the military and political arenas. He believed sport was a source of moral and educative energy that could change the world for the better. Today’s Olympics have little if anything to with his ideals, or mine. At these Olympics the ideal of sport, which is to suppress and deflect militarism and nationalism, joins in lockstep with them, or at least the mentality that nourishes them.
When Coubertin and his comrades readied the grounds at Olympia for the Modern Games, no one thought to suggest importing snow and ice to feature bobsleds, biathlons, or skiing. Figure skating came into the summer program at the London Olympics a dozen years later only because it happened to be a favorite in the host country. The next Olympics, though staged in seemingly propitious Oslo in 1912, offered no wintry frolics. Ice hockey, like figure skating an indoor sport that could be played in the summer, became an Olympic event at the Antwerp Games of 1920. Not until 1924, in Chamonix, France, did the International Olympics Committee (IOC) tepidly endorse an elaborate and separate Winter Games — featuring only bobsledding, figure skating, hockey, Nordic skiing, and speed skating — as an “Olympic winter carnival.”
Coubertin had not approved. When, however, the Olympic movement’s founder retired from the IOC in 1925, the way was clear to create the first official Winter Olympics for 1928, in St, Moritz, Switzerland. It proved enormously popular, with 15-year-old Norwegian figure skater Sonja Henie emerging as the star of the Games as she would again in 1932 at Lake Placid and 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen.
World War II wiped out the Winter and Summer Games that would have been staged in 1940 and 1944. When the Olympics resumed in 1948, the Winter Games returned to St. Moritz. America gained its first figure-skating champion in Harvard freshman Dick Button, who repeated in 1952 and is with us still as the voice of figure-skating competition. I dimly recall the battle for the gold medal in the women’s event in 1956, when Tenley Albright bested Carol Heiss, who came back to take gold four years later. But I became an enthusiastic spectator in 1960, when the U.S. hockey team upset the Soviet team and captured the gold, led by goalie Jack McCartan, who would go on to a brief and undistinguished stint with my beloved Sad Sack Rangers.
And through the decades I rode the slalom with Jean-Claude Killy, Ingemar Stenmark, and my favorite, Alberto Tomba. I thrilled to the U.S. hockey team’s Miracle on Ice of 1980. I rooted for Dorothy Hamill and Rosi Mittermaier, was amazed by Eric Heiden and Johan Olav Koss, and even felt bad for Nancy Kerrigan ... and Tonya Harding, too.
But this year marks an end to my watching the Olympics, Winter or Summer. Give me the athletes who play for pay rather than the drumbeat of nations and networks.